Aaron and Francesca

I always see Aaron’s images more vividly than he does, informed and reassured by the clues I get from his eyes, face, and the rest of his body; clues that hint at feelings simmering deep inside him. Mirror neurons inexorably fire between us, mimic each other, and leave trails of connection. It happens all the time in groups. One person starts yawning, others follow. Consider the roommates at Wellesley whose menstrual cycles became synchronized after a few months living together. Imagine the millions of mirror neurons firing and connecting between Aaron and Francesca.

“I go out on dates but keep seeing her face,” Aaron says. “But when I’m with her she makes me crazy. Once we were driving in LA, I tell her she’s too close to another car and she screams at me that she once had an abusive boyfriend who dictated the way she drives. Now it’s ‘You never want to make love and the few times we do you’re not there for me. You didn’t want me in New Orleans for Mardi Gras with your friends. You’re ashamed to introduce me to your family.’ My family’s the least of it. They’d bend over backward to love her, even if in their hearts they’d prefer a nice Jewish girl from Glencoe who has a taste for Shabbats and Sunday barbeques on the shore of Lake Michigan. Francesca’s a vegan agnostic who draws a blank on shabbats and winces at the prospect of hanging out with flesh-eaters at barbecues.” 

As he speaks, I imagine their breakup. They sit on a park bench in front of the Holocaust Museum. Her eyes dart back and forth between him and Ellis Island, his frozen on the Statue of Liberty. He’s amazed she can see it coming. “I’m sorry,” he pleads as two bicyclists almost collide behind them. One yells ‘Fuck you!’ in Spanish. This time instead of losing it she tries to play along with him. As Francesca pleads, a wave of optimism suddenly courses through Aaron, the dopamine rush of a 38-year-old celebrity author who for the last year – ever since he appeared on Colbert and Maher – has been a magnet for braless 23-year-olds in lace thongs with shaved vaginas.  

Aaron’s highs are always short-lived, dissolved in a black tide that swirls up in his belly and rises to his chest. It happens when he eats alone in restaurants where nobody knows him. He sneaks looks at the couples seated around him. Some are absorbed in their food. Others sniff and taste wine. Many don’t speak or look at each other. But a finger lightly skims a hand. A knee brushes a leg. A foot grazes an ankle. He tries to imagine the complicated narratives they’re creating together. Obligated to go where the other goes. Hear what the other says. Accept what they’ll never accept about each other. How it kills them to be seen like nobody else ever sees them, the way they really are. Aaron lets out a deep sigh of relief. “I know in my brain I’ll soon feel like dating again.” He says the words as his face grows numb like he’s just been lobotomized. 

They met on Elite Singles, vacationed in France, and returned guardedly optimistic after gazing at the waterlilies in Giverny. Then Francesca discovered she was pregnant. She used the abortion pill right after she got back to LA. “This pregnancy came along when we were in a weak, degraded place, Aaron says. “Maybe she really wanted to keep it but I know she’s as relieved as I am. Her career’s taking off. They’re sending her more screenplays. She’ll soon be on the A list. As sad as it sounds, I’m no longer attracted to her. Feel like I dodged a bullet. My main concern now is how to get out of the relationship, in a proper way.”

“What do you mean by a proper way?” I ask. “A lot of guys would just walk away from her. You don’t seem to be able to.” Aaron can never come back with an answer that describes what he’s feeling. It was much easier for him to buy Francesca a thousand-dollar Gucci handbag before he returned to New York.

Aaron has never met Francesca’s family but she’s hinted that something too horrible to talk about happened between her and her father. Whenever they make love, Francesca always goes down on Aaron and he never wonders why. When he describes their sex life, I picture twelve-year-old Francesca desperately striving to please her father, following his exact instructions; now a beautiful, thirty-year-old woman intoxicated with the sensuous taste of Aaron that never quite masks the terror of letting him or any other guy more deeply inside her. Last week when Aaron refused to have sex with her, she broke into sobs. “The cruelest thing a man has ever done to me,” she said, during the only couples’ session Aaron ever agreed to have with her.

Aaron speaks matter of factly about his family. His father a gifted surgeon, his mother a published writer, an older brother a successful lawyer. “I was a latch key kid from eight to nine when mom was attending a lot of writer’s conferences and dad practically lived in the hospital. “I’d come home from school and Luke would take care of me. We’ve always been tight. Today we go on vacations together at least twice a year.” Aaron rarely speaks of the time his mother had cancer. She went through chemo, monthly MRI’s, assorted blood tests, and physical exams from when he was nine to twelve years old.

The last time we met, I tried giving Aron a little psycho-ed on the strain of caring for others, always having to do triage. I used a scene from an old MASH episode to illustrate. “This hotshot surgeon comes in to help, then one day as the wounded come streaming in the guy disappears. Later they find him collapsed on the floor in Colonel Potter’s tent. He looks at his bloody hands, shakes his head. ‘No, no more,’ he says. Hawkeye looks dumbfounded. ‘He’s just like the rest of us,’ he says.”

Aaron suddenly grows tearful. “I’d come home from school, sneak up to my mother’s bedroom when she wasn’t there and wear the wig she used when she was going through chemo. Her cancer wig. Dad never wanted her to wear it and she always needed to please him. Once she asked me what I thought. I didn’t know what to tell her.”

Shortly after that, Aaron dreamed he was walking in an open field with maggots all around him. Terrified, he scurries to scoop all of them up in a bag that’s way too small. Overcome with terror, he jumped out of the dream and woke up shaking. Yesterday, he called and told me he had another dream that so upset him he couldn’t wait till our next meeting.

“Francesca and I are in bed, suddenly we’re with another couple in Times Square. She’s a mess, her clothes all askew. I tell the other couple she’s okay and she screams, ‘You’re making it worse!’ Then she metamorphoses into a pet dog.”

 Aaron also jumped out of that one.

“She’ll never be normal,” he blurts out before reaching the couch. Today his words, their tone, are different, not the usual PowerPoint presentation that camouflages the tortured triage he keeps reliving in the little boy part of his hippocampus. “I miss her more than ever. I was on a date last night with this twenty-something. We went back to my apartment, had sex. Laying there in bed, she told me she’s read some of my stuff, said I’ve got suave. I mean, she actually said it with a straight face! Francesca likes to call me the dumpster hamster. ‘There he is at his lectern,’ she says with her nose all crinkled up, ‘burrowing into his lecture notes while all the hot chicks in the audience are measuring the size of his penis.’ She tells me I use logic in my writing to cover my feelings.” Aaron suddenly breaks into sobs. “Yesterday she mailed me an old Joni Mitchell cd, Tin Angel. I listened to it three, maybe four times. ‘There’s a sorrow in his eyes. Like the angel made of tin. What will happen if I try, to place another heart in him.’ The lyrics, they keep spinning in my head like a windmill.” More deep, wrenching sobs.

After Aaron left, I thought of Franki whom I haven’t thought of in years. My first year in graduate school, our tiny walkup in Philadelphia off Rittenhouse Square. I put the moves on her at a party, she took me home and made me justify for over an hour why she should go to bed with me. Afterward, I could tell she felt I wasn’t a very good lover but was too kind to say it. The following week she let me move in with her.

Franki was the only white teacher in an all-black junior high school in West Philadelphia. One day she got it in her head to take some of her kids to Spain with her during summer vacation. So we launched a fund-raising drive. Every Saturday out of a different household, cranking out fried chicken dinners, potato salad, and collard greens, with a chitlins option. I can still see one of the mothers selling shots at a buck a pop to her neighbors to put toward her kid’s travel money. I was the delivery boy, drove all over West Philadelphia in my Volkswagen Fastback loaded with chicken dinners, with the chitlins option. Never had chitlins, always been too squeamish to eat pig intestines, let alone pork but that’s another story. Franki took twelve kids to Spain with her that Summer, every kid except me. I was too busy proving I was the smartest kid in a seminar on Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams.

Franki died of cancer about ten years after we got divorced. I see her smiling down on me now, giving me the special look she always reserved exclusively for me, whispering, “I’ve met slower people than you André, but not many.”

I’d watch her fresh from her afternoon nap sitting at the dining table, grading her children’s workbooks, preparing the next day’s lesson. Sneak looks at her from the solitary sofa, bewildered, wondering at her simplicity as she worked the children’s papers, Anastasia purring softly on her knees. It eluded me how she attained such pure felicity, that sweet, delicious, gentle girl, now become my revere.

So much of my life now is about trying to help my patients reprocess trauma and create better, more fulfilling lives. Can I help Aaron dare to create a better life with Francesca, better than the one I lived with Franki?

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